Van the Flower of Southern Womanhood Bloom in the Garden of Southern Politics?

By Tolleson-Rinehart, Sue | Southern Cultures, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Van the Flower of Southern Womanhood Bloom in the Garden of Southern Politics?


Tolleson-Rinehart, Sue, Southern Cultures


Ah, the flower of southern womanhood: gracious, lovely, and charming. Many features of southern culture have changed greatly over time. In one way, though, the South retains its distinctiveness: it remains the region of the country least hospitable to the election of women to office. The reasons for this are intricately, and inextricably, bound to those notions of southern womanhood.

Even after virtual explosions of women's electoral activity in the mid-1970s and 1980s, and the "Year of the Woman" in 1992, the South has not yet contributed her share of stateswomen to the public realm. By 1997 eight of the ten states with the lowest percentages of women in state legislatures were former Confederate or border states, with Alabama ranking fiftieth (see Table 1). West Virginia, a border state, was among the "highest of the lowest," and another border state, Maryland, broke into the national top ten. Of the states usually thought to comprise the "South"--most often defined as the eleven former states of the Confederacy--only Florida is in the top twenty-five. None of the remaining southern states does well, if by "well" we mean having elected a meaningful number of women. North Carolina, for example, ranks thirty-second in the nation, with six out of fifty North Carolina senators who are women, and only 23 women in a 120-member state house. Texas, despite the very visible presence of elected women like former governor Ann Richards, U.S. senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, or Houston's five-term former mayor Kathy Whitmire, nonetheless ranks thirtieth, with a state legislature that is only 18.2 percent female. States with much higher percentages of women in their state legislatures, in contrast, are all, with the noted exception of Maryland, to be found in New England, the West, or the upper Midwest. Washington's state legislature is almost 40 percent female, making it number one; and the "worst of the best," the Connecticut legislature, is still more than a quarter female.

Table 1. The "Best" and "Worst" States for Women's
Electoral Success, 1997

Proportion of Women (%) in the Ten "Best" State Legislatures

Washington          38.1
Arizona             37.8
Colorado            35.0
Nevada              33.3
Vermont             31.7
New Hampshire       31.1
Minnesota           30.3
Maryland            29.8
Kansas              29.7
Connecticut         28.9

Proportion of Women (%) in the Ten "Worst" State Legislatures

West Virginia      14.9
Tennessee          13.6
Alaska             13.3
South Carolina     12.9
Pennsylvania       12.3
Mississippi        11.5
Louisiana          11.1
Oklahoma           10.1
Kentucky            9.4
Alabama             4.3

Proportion of Women (%) by Party in the Eleven Former States
of the Confederacy

Democrats          70.1 (183)
Republicans        29.9 (78)

Source: Center for the American Woman and Politics, National Information Bank on Women in Public Office Fact Sheet (March 1997). Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University. The partisan breakdown of women state legislators was calculated by the author.

Table 2. Women in Southern State Legislatures, 1997

                                Senate
                       Dem       Rep    (% Female)

Alabama                 2         0        (5.7)
Arkansas                0         1        (2.8)
Florida                 2         4       (15.0)
Georgia                 6         1       (12.5)
Louisiana               2         0        (5.1)
Mississippi             3         0        (5.8)
North Carolina          4         2       (12.0)
South Carolina          2         1        (6.5)
Tennessee               3         0        (9.1)
Texas                   1         2        (9.7)
Virginia                6         1       (17.5)

                      House

                       Dem       Rep    (% Female)

Alabama                 4          0       (3. … 

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